38 Minutes

     The message was sent to everyone in Hawaii at approximately 8:00 am on a sunny Saturday morning. The peacefulness of paradise was suddenly interrupted across the state when cell phones simultaneously blared with an ominous buzz. A warning message lit up everybody’s screen: “Emergency Alert. Ballistic Missile Threat Inbound To Hawaii. Seek Immediate Shelter. This is not a drill”. Clear. Concise. Short and to the point. What would you do if you received that message?

     For 38 minutes, people in Hawaii had to live in fear before they were notified the alert was a false alarm. I’m sure it was the longest 38 minutes of their lives. How long does it take for that kind of message to sink in once it’s staring at you from your phone screen? I think I’d be staring at my screen for 38 minutes wondering if it could be real. Although, the “this is not a drill” might knock me to my senses in a hurry.

     Residents of Hawaii were starting their day, eating breakfast, running errands, making
to-do lists. Vacationers were heading to the beach, enjoying the breathtaking scenery and planning weekend excursions. No one expected to have their day disrupted by an incoming ballistic missile. Hotel guests were herded into basements. People took shelter in bathrooms, some huddling in bathtubs seeking any kind of extra protection from whatever was coming their way. Disturbing videos surfaced of parents dropping their children into manholes on the street. Anxiety and uncertainty filled the tropical air.

     The alarming story hit close to home. A coworker in my office received a text of the alert screen on his cell phone Saturday morning. The text came from his son who was in Hawaii enjoying his honeymoon. The newlywed’s morning stroll on the beach was cut short by the cell phone alerts. The couple headed back to their hotel, knowing the open, airy setting would offer them little protection from a potential missile attack. Like almost everyone on the island, they simply didn’t know what to do.

     I asked my coworker how he handled receiving that kind of news on his cell phone. “I couldn’t really process it. It was just a feeling of disbelief,” he said. I’m sure the honeymooners couldn’t believe it either. If it’s any consolation, at least they have a great story to tell.

     The emergency alert system has a major flaw in it if this false alarm was really caused by someone hitting the wrong button during a shift change in a government computer room. How can anyone take future warnings seriously now?

     I was too young to remember the nuclear preparedness drills of the 1950’s. School children were instructed to crouch under their desks, turn their faces away from the windows and shield their eyes from any bright flash of light. In the 1960’s and 1970’s nuclear war was more of a vague threat that we never believed would really happen. The scariest thing we had to deal with was the television miniseries The Day After depicting the events following a nuclear attack on the United States.

     President’s Trump’s war of words with the North Korean government has ignited the real threat of a doomsday scenario. A nuclear attack is one push of a button away. The event in Hawaii brought into focus what would happen if I received an alert about an imminent missile strike. I would calmly go about my business, spending my last hours doing what I enjoy most. I’d draw a cartoon. I’d write a newspaper column, trying to put my feelings into words for whomever might read them in whatever part of the world is left. If there are no survivors, my words will still exist on their own, marking my short-lived moment in time, recording my place in the history of the world.

     After the final alert, I would seek shelter in my basement, with my wife by my side. We would gather up favorite photos of our children and grandchildren, finding comfort in their smiling faces. I would use a hammer and chisel on the famous rock that takes up three-quarters of my basement floor. I would carve these words: “I Was Here” – a cave painting etched in stone to be discovered by a future generation who will hopefully learn from our mistakes.

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